Rice has been cultivated in the Gangetic plains of India for millennia. The cultivation of rice here is not just any other grain cultivation, but it’s a process that has moulded the culture of the people like no other. There are songs specific for each activity – ropnigeet, katnigeet; there is merriment, there are festivals, in fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that the whole life of people revolves around the cultivation of rice.
The process of cultivation of rice starts around the first week of June when the harsh Indian summer is at its peak. The last feasting of the lagan (marriage season) is over and the summer has left everyone exhausted. The seasonal high points of summer, the mangoes, the lichees, and the kharbujas and tarbujas have all come and gone. Even as the sun is still mercilessly beating down on the Gangetic plains and heat waves have parched the normally humid landscape totally dry, sucking out the last drops of water from every crevice, the cultivator starts to bring out his implements – his plough, chaas, and other implements. Taking stomach full of traditional drinks made from ground gram (sattu) and occasionally saunf, and keeping full onion in his pocket, he has to leave the cool environs of his thatched hut and start venturing into the unforgiving hot and dry weather. Functional literacy, handed through word of mouth over generations has taught him how to survive the extreme weather with minimum of appurtenances.
He takes his implements to the village artisans – the blacksmith and the carpenter – to make them ready for the busy season ahead. He knows that once the rains fall, there would be no time to tend to his implements. It is also the time to spread the cow-dung, which was allowed to rot in ditches for the whole year. Unlike the other fertiliser, this manure has to be spread on his best field, as he knows that there is no manure better than this organic manure for his tender seedlings.
Spreading the seedlings
The first drops of rain fall around mid June heralding the monsoon. The first rain is normally accompanied with strong cool winds and sometime also hailstorm. As the first drops of water quench the thirst of the parched earth, it oozes an intoxicating earthy (saundha) smell that can be found in only this part of the world. The earth acquires a greenish hue – it is as if the no nonsense tomboy has turned all feminine grace on getting married.
Now there is no time to loose and the cultivator has to quickly plough the Beehan Kiyaris (Seedling fields) where the manure has already been spread. In less than a week, those fields have to be ploughed, seeds spread and flattened again for the seed to start germinating in the hot and humid soil just under the surface.
Ploughing the Land
Once the seedlings spread, all the agricultural fields in the village good enough for rice cultivation have to be ploughed. It would be barely six weeks when the seedlings would be ready for transplantation and the ploughing has to be accomplished in this period. By this time, the monsoon is in full flow and the urgency of the first few days has given way to the humdrum of the busy agricultural season. There are still not enough hours to do all that needs to be done, but life assumes a routine.
The humdrum of ploughing follows the extreme physical activity of the transplantation phase. Transplantation is a very intricate process that has to be accomplished very quickly. If the seedlings are allowed to get over-ripe before being transplanted, it would be very harmful for the quality for the rice. No cultivator has the resources to accomplish this alone and all of them have to depend on others to achieve this. This is the time when old rivalries and petty differences have to be forgotten as this once in a year opportunity cannot be missed. All able bodied men and women are out in the field. Elderly help with household chores like cooking and children help by transporting the meals to the field as there is no time to loose in commuting between the field and the house. Men may not rest for days and children may bunk school. Even the teachers may leave the school to give a helping hand during this crucial phase.
There is some respite from hard physical labour once the transplantation is done, but no time to be lax. Now is the time to tend the field and protect it from all enemies, both natural and human. Machan may be put in the field to keep a watchful eye day and night. The male members may not have a chance to come home for weeks. There has to be just enough water in the field for the rice to grow; if you don’t drain the excess water, it would become flooded and destroy the crop. If water is less, the paddy may start to die.
The same village neighbour who had helped him in the crucial transplantation phase may now not hesitate to leave his cattle loose for grazing in an unattended field. If the neighbour had not helped when all were watching, the animosity would have come out in the open; in the cover of darkness, one can always settle a few scores without too much damage to one’s reputation. In any case, the petty differences, probably festering for generations, were merely papered over, not by any means settled.
Mid season Break and the festivals
Around October, the paddy has grown to waist height and needs less tending. Monsoon has somewhat slackened and there is festivities everywhere, for now is the festival (puja) season. : Dushshra, Divali and Chath are celebrated in this period. The all round greenery adds to the festivities. Other than keeping a watchful eye to keep the cattle and the thief away, which brothers and friendly neighbours can take turns to do, it is a time of comparative physical rest but mental alertness.
Harvesting starts as soon as the last araghya to the Sun god has been given. This is another period of intense physical activity when the paddy has to be harvested and transported to the Kharihaan for processing. When we see Indian software professionals slogging during crucial phases of a project like go live or testing, and barely managing to keep office timings during “normal” office days, one cannot help thinking if they have got it in their genes from their agriculturist forebears who had to work seasonally like this. It is this perhaps which helps him in his direct march from the agricultural age to the information age, bypassing the evolution of the industrial age and its clockwork precision.
As the temperature starts to dip with the onset of the winter, the processing of the grain starts in the Kharihaan. After the first offering to the gods – the gram devi (village deity), the fruits of the labour is ready to savour. Certain varieties of rice may be boiled with the husk to prepare the parboiled rice. After this, the rice husk is removed in the wooden “dheki”, a process greatly enjoyed by the ladies of the house and accompanied with much merriment.
Rice has always been a symbol of plenty in Hindu tradition. According to the custom, married women in India are honoured and wished a life of plenty by presenting them with a handful of rice, turmeric and grass saplings (Khoincha) on all festive occasions. The throwing of rice is associated with all pious Hindu rituals include weddings.
Patna Rice, the king of all rice, comes to you from the intricate handcrafted process described above, perfected over generations.